NASA has revealed today some early concept illustrations of its proposed new Space Launch System which is being designed to replace the former Ares I and Ares V with one multi-purpose vehicle as mandated in the NASA Authorisations Act of 2010.
The idea is to use as much existing technology as possible to keep the costs down. For example it will use five of the R-25 main engines from the Space Shuttle and the same solid boosters as well, although there is a plan to have competing boosters designed by Aerojet and Teledyne Brown.
The first flight is scheduled, ambitiously, for December 2017 with a possible manned Lunar orbital flight in 2021. In 2025 it is thought that they are planning a possible manned asteroid exploration flight with the big manned mission to Mars by 2031, although they haven't officially announced these dates.
The cost, for the next six years until the rocket launches, will be $10 billion for the vehicle itself, $6 billion for the crew vehicle and another $2 billion for upgrades to the Kennedy Space Centre to allow it to launch the huge rocket.
Its initial lift capacity will be 50 tonnes growing to a possible 130 tonnes as the system is developed and the more powerful boosters are designed. This compares with the 22.7 tonne payload capacity of the Shuttle. The entire stack will be about twice the height of the Shuttle launch group and at 335 feet only 30 feet short of the Saturn V.
NASA, with its eyes firmly on the budget, has designed the project so that the initial high development cost portion will be front-loaded to early in the programme so that inflation doesn't eat into the near on $60 billion budget. Using a lot of Shuttle technology means that they will be able to re-employ many of the technicians and companies that lost work when the Shuttle was cancelled.